Applying strategies from libertarian paternalism to decision making for prostate specific antigen (PSA) screening

David C. Wheeler, Konrad M. Szymanski, Amanda Black, David E. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

11 Scopus citations


Background: Despite the recent publication of results from two randomized clinical trials, prostate specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer remains a controversial issue. There is lack of agreement across studies that PSA screening significantly reduces prostate cancer mortality. In spite of these facts, the widespread use of PSA testing in the United States leads to overdetection and overtreatment of clinically indolent prostate cancer, and its associated harms of incontinence and impotence.Discussion: Given the inconclusive results from clinical trials and incongruent PSA screening guidelines, the decision to screen for prostate cancer with PSA testing is an uncertain one for patients and health care providers. Screening guidelines from some health organizations recommend an informed decision making (IDM) or shared decision making (SDM) approach for deciding on PSA screening. These approaches aim to empower patients to choose among the available options by making them active participants in the decision making process. By increasing involvement of patients in the clinical decision-making process, IDM/SDM places more of the responsibility for a complex decision on the patient. Research suggests, however, that patients are not well-informed of the harms and benefits associated with prostate cancer screening and are also subject to an assortment of biases, emotion, fears, and irrational thought that interferes with making an informed decision. In response, the IDM/SDM approaches can be augmented with strategies from the philosophy of libertarian paternalism (LP) to improve decision making. LP uses the insights of behavioural economics to help people better make better choices. Some of the main strategies of LP applicable to PSA decision making are a default decision rule, framing of decision aids, and timing of the decision. In this paper, we propose that applying strategies from libertarian paternalism can help with PSA screening decision-making.Summary: Our proposal to augment IDM and SDM approaches with libertarian paternalism strategies is intended to guide patients toward a better decision about testing while maintaining personal freedom of choice. While PSA screening remains controversial and evidence conflicting, a libertarian-paternalism influenced approach to decision making can help prevent the overdiagnosis and overtreatment of prostate cancer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number148
JournalBMC Cancer
StatePublished - Apr 21 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research

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